Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home pageNo. 38, Fall/Winter 1995
The Whole Wired World

Case Study/Building a World Wide Web Exhibit/by Andrew K. Johnston and Frederick C. Engle

"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."
Thomas Watson
Chairman of IBM, 1943

Earth's drylands include arid, semiarid, and dry subhumid landscapes. The drylands are vital ecosystems found in more than a hundred countries and are home to about a billion people. To demonstrate the importance of the drylands and the challenges they face, the Smithsonian Institution and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) collaborated to produce an exhibit titled Bright Edges of the World: The Earth's Evolving Drylands (1). The exhibit takes its name from a description of semiarid grasslands in the Willa Cather novel Death Comes for the Archbishop:

... for that wind that made one a boy again... one could breathe that only on the bright edges of the world, on the great grass plains or the sagebrush desert.

UNEP and the Smithsonian began planning for the exhibit in 1994 as part of an effort to publicize the drylands' importance. During the planning process, it was decided to create both physical and electronic versions of the exhibit. The physical exhibit now consists of backlit panels and is on display at UNEP's Nairobi headquarters. The electronic version is a World Wide Web site and resides on a computer at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in Washington DC.

The Challenge

Producing the WWW exhibit was a challenging enterprise, but it has proven to be a useful tool in spreading knowledge of the drylands among the environmental community, policy makers, and the public.

The creation and maintenance of Bright Edges (as we call the exhibit in shorthand) is the responsibility of NASM's Center for Earth and Planetary Studies (CEPS). The research staff at CEPS has curatorial responsibilities for exhibits on geomorphology, planetary geology, remote sensing technology, and the application of remote sensing technology to environmental studies. Most NASM exhibits are years in design, planning, and construction. Bright Edges presented CEPS with a new challenge. The timeline for Bright Edges required researchers also to function as curators, script writers, editors, exhibit designers, and photo researchers. Remote sensing is the common research tool at CEPS, but the staff has learned that image interpretation can be problematic for museum visitors. Exhibits and publications for the public require a combination of satellite images, ground photographs, and clear, non-technical text.

Gathering images and researching photographs proved to be the most time-consuming activity. Forays into Washington's many photo libraries provided outstanding ground photographs of drylands people, processes, and landscapes. These libraries included the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Agency for International Development, the Embassy of Australia, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Larger photo collections, such as the National Archives and the Library of Congress, were not searched because their size and procedures made them less responsive to the exhibit's schedule. Ground photos also were transmitted via Internet from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Australia (2). Other ground photos were sent by express mail from colleagues at the environmental NGO called ECOFORCE in Brazil. Copyrights are held on many images, so special permission often is required to use material on the Internet. In the production of Bright Edges, permission usually was obtained with a simple phone call and an agreement to include a credit in the exhibit. Many other images and ground photos came from the collections of researchers in CEPS. Most of these were 35-mm slides taken during fieldwork.

The format of image sources for the exhibit varied greatly, and included digital images, 35-mm slides, and photographic prints. To turn hard-copy images into digital images, we used a high-resolution slide scanner for slides and a 600-dpi flatbed scanner for prints. Many different techniques were used to integrate these images into the electronic exhibit, but all preparation was done with desktop computers and commercially available software: most material for the exhibit was sorted and processed on Macintosh computers, using software such as Adobe Photoshop; simple word processors were used to create and edit text. When ready, all this material was copied onto a Sun system running UNIX, which functions as the internet connection for CEPS.

Many WWW sites contain very large images. For most Internet users this means a long wait for pages to load. Many people have joked that instead of "point-and-click," the Web has a "click-and-wait" interface. To minimize this frustration, image sizes in Bright Edges are now limited to about 100k (100 kilobytes). Even so, many visitors to the site may experience slow access times. Although it has not been implemented at our site, many web builders create "text-only" versions of their pages to eliminate images completely.

With all the text and images in place, Bright Edges went online in May 1995. The WWW site is always accessible and is updated periodically. The Sun system that hosts the exhibit is used for research at CEPS, but it also houses the Web site of the National Air and Space Museum.

Is It Real? Or Is It Virtual?

Just as with a physical (some would say "real") museum exhibit, advertising is necessary to attract visitors to a digital exhibit. Attendance was poor when Bright Edges first opened. It was only after a bit of electronic publicity that visitors materialized.

There are many ways to publicize a WWW site; most are easy to do and deliver quick results. There are thousands of discussion groups on the Internet, and many are good places to advertise a new site. Bright Edges was announced on the museum-l and conserve-l groups, attracting members of both lists. A common way of surfing the Web is to use one of several sorts of search engines (3). These Web sites allow quick access to the overwhelming amount of material available on the Internet by searching sites for user-defined keywords or allowing the surfer to browse categorized, often annotated lists. A search for the word drylands, for example, will find Bright Edges and many other sites. To alert the proprietors of search engines that your site exists, simply send an e-mail message. Most search engines, indexes, and directories contain a "mailto," a way instantly to respond to a site maintainer or webmaster/webmistress; mailtos often appear on a Web page as an e-mail address displayed in blue and/or underlined, indicating that it is an active hyperlink.

Another way to attract visitors is to have links created from other Web sites. Before Bright Edges existed, there already were many WWW sites related to drylands. Many of the people that operated these sites agreed to create links to our site. As common WWW courtesy requires, reciprocating links were created. It's very easy to do, so many sites on the Web are actually overcrowded with links. Indeed, some sites contain very little but links to other sites!

Pieces of the Pie

Communicating on the Internet is a powerful method of spreading the word. On the Internet, there is a great deal of information available about drylands, ecology, and just about everything else. If used correctly, the `Net can reach a wide audience at low cost, allowing entire, often physically dispersed communities of people to share information and ideas.

As we've accumulated experience with this new publishing medium, we've discovered a couple of useful additions to primary content, as well as one of the main benefits of mounting a digital exhibit.

Hit Counter. As Bright Edges became popular, it proved useful to us to see how many people are using the site. The software that runs Web sites enables a count to be made of the number of visitors. These so-called hit counters also can record the visitor's home location, making it possible to generalize about where visitors are coming from. Every month or so, statistics are collected about the people visiting Bright Edges. To date, thousands of people have seen the exhibit, mostly from North America and Europe.

Comments Page. Our site contains a comments page, a simple and common way t obtain feedback from visitors. The comments that visitors leave are sent as e-mail messages to the people operating the site. For Bright Edges, the volume of comments has not been overwhelming, so responding to them has not proved to be time-consuming. Most messages are questions from people wanting more information or offering ideas to improve the exhibit.

Update, update, update. The WWW version of Bright Edges is very flexible and allows for constant updates and future growth, making it different from any traditional museum exhibit. Some of the changes have added new information; as a result, the electronic exhibit now contains much more material than does the physical exhibit. Sections about the Dust Bowl (4) and the drylands of Brazil (5) were created and pages describing problems in the Sahel (6) and the Aral Sea (7) have been expanded. Other changes were made to make the exhibit clearer or simply more attractive. Soon after Bright Edges opened, visitors complained about the large size of some images. These images were re-scaled to work better in a WWW site. The first page was updated to more clearly define the exhibit sections. The information page was reformatted to be easier to understand and to attract more comments from visitors.

The goals of the Bright Edges exhibit are to educate people all over the world about the importance and promise of Earth's drylands. Using the Internet has proved to be the best way to reach those goals. It has allowed the exhibit to reach more people than would be possible with a traditional museum display. The audience has been large and widely dispersed. Electronic exhibits of this type will surely become more prevalent as the technology matures and the Internet community grows.

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Principal Internet Resources Cited in this Article

[URLs last checked January 2000]

1. Bright Edges of the World

2. Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (Australia)

3. Deus ex Machina: Web Search Engines [20 Nov. '98, site no longer available]

4. Bright Edges: The Dust Bowl

4. Bright Edges: Brazil

5. Bright Edges: The Sahel

6. Bright Edges: Aral Sea

Andrew K. Johnston and Frederick C. Engle are geographers at the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

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